On March 7, 1965, civil rights icon and former Rep. John Lewis attempted to lead 600 other activists in a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest how the state prevented Black people from voting. However, state troopers stopped the protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and violently beat several of them. The images of the state troopers hurting the protesters earned that pivotal march the name “Bloody Sunday” and appalled the American public. To respond to the ensuing outcry, on Aug. 6, 1965, former President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law.
The VRA turned out to be one of the most successful voting rights laws in U.S. history. In the latter part of the 20th century, the number of voters of color and elected officials of color swelled. Congress reauthorized the VRA five times with strong bipartisan support – most recently in 2006 by a vote of 390-33 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 98-0 in the U.S. Senate. During each reauthorization, Congress held hours of hearings that demonstrated the persistence of racism in our democracy and the continued effectiveness of the VRA in combatting it.
But the Supreme Court put an end to this progress when it handed down a decision gutting a key provision of the VRA in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder. Specifically, the Court invalidated the formula for determining which states should be subject to preclearance, a process requiring jurisdictions with long histories of voting discrimination to receive approval from the federal government before implementing new voting rules. Since then, several states and localities have enacted anti-voter laws that prevent Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans from voting at disproportionately high rates by restricting opportunities for voter validation, closing polling places, deleting voters from state voter rolls, prohibiting nonpartisan nonprofits from distributing mail ballot applications and limiting the ability to vote early or by mail. This includes at least four states that passed restrictive laws in the first half of 2021, according to a report released by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) that shows the need for federal legislation to protect voters. In July 2021, the Court further damaged the VRA with its decision in the case Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, which made it harder to protect people from voting discrimination nationally.
To strengthen American democracy and stop racially targeted attacks on Americans’ freedom to vote, the House passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, otherwise known as H.R. 4 or the VRAA, in August 2021. Named after Lewis following his death in 2020, the VRAA would honor his legacy and mitigate the damage of the Supreme Court’s harmful decisions by amending and restoring the original VRA, barring future racially discriminatory voting laws from being implemented. This legislation would reinstate a preclearance formula, establish new review and approval criteria preventing harmful laws from going into effect, temporarily stop discriminatory voting changes from taking effect while they are reviewed, mandate that states implement transparency protocols to inform their residents when voting laws in the state are changed and offer new voting protections for Native American tribal lands, like equal access to voter registration, polling places, early voting locations and mail-in ballots.
The U.S. Senate should follow the House’s lead in coming together to pass H.R. 4 so that President Biden can sign the bill into law. Protecting Americans’ access to voting is an issue that has historically received resounding bipartisan support and transcended the political divide, and it should do so again today. We all deserve to have an equal say in the key decisions that will impact our future. For that to happen, voters need to be able to express themselves at the ballot box and have a government that truly represents them. That’s why now is the time to restore and strengthen our freedom to vote by eliminating racial discrimination at the ballot box.